This short study was created during the Covid-19 lockdown. Reflecting on my own isolation and need to reach out and touch the world, I created this duet with a Mirror, building on my research with Mirror in 2017. I was initially drawn to the way the mirror created an external ‘partner’, with the crop of my arm seeming both connected and disconnected from my body. In the final section I play with the perspective and framing of the camera, which mirrored that of the mirror itself creating a double dialogue and commentary on the ways we are contained and ‘enframed’ by our real and virtual spaces.
There’s a great quote in an interview with Philip Decoufle where, asked about his solo work, he states:
“There is no choreography in a solo. Choreography begins when there are three dancers. When there are one or two I don’t believe it’s choreography. ” (Pakes, 2004)
And yet here I am, as I think are many others in this Covid world, seeking to do what Decoufle states is impossible: to choreograph on myself. To the countless artists for whom working alone is an ongoing fascination and choice, Decoufle’s words possibly say more about the expectation of what it means to choreograph, then the impossibility of self-choreographing,…perhaps?
Which leads me to wonder: what does it mean to ‘self-choreograph’? And, more to the point, why does it feel so difficult?
Perhaps so much is made out of the difficulty of being alone in a space, that we allow ourselves to be consumed by the emptiness of it? I know my challenges are not so much around what to do, but why I do it. Why this leg instead of that leg? Why now and not later? What’s the point of it? Who wants to see this? Why would anyone want to see this?
Which is why the question, ‘what does it mean to self-choreograph?’ is not just a question of definition. Of course it feels significant that I describe it as ‘self-choreography’ and not simply ‘solo choreography’. Solo choreography can be performed by another after all. By self-choreography I mean to forefront the authorship over the singularity of the performer, I mean to direct the viewer not just to the presentation of a dance, but to the self-choreographed nature of a dance. And there-in lies it’s stickiness.
Self-choreography involves engaging with the multiple facets of ‘self’ (a loaded term, for sure). It involves recognising the different voices that are present in the mind when one starts dancing alone. The alone-ness, the emptiness, the silence may feel like a harsh denial, but, like meditation practices, it’s simply a momentary restriction on stimulus that allows those voices to become really present. And don’t they know it! Working alone is difficult because it acquaints us with ourselves. At this point I recall Ben Spatz’ question in ‘What a Body Can Do’: ‘Is this theatre or therapy, spirituality or research?’ (Spatz, 2015)
The answer depends on what you do with it.
For me, the emptiness is filled with a single strident critic. Working with my mentor, Rosalind Crisp, I’ve become aware of the gazillion ways ‘that voice’ stifles my dancing. Nothing I do is right for her, nothing interesting, nothing good enough. She embodies every single person who has told me I’m no good, every programmer who turned me away, every bad application outcome. She has a bloody loud voice, she’s cynical, critical and deeply unhappy. That bit’s the therapy.
But now someone else walks in. She tells the critic to shut it and sit down over there, tells the dancer to stop fussing over her clothing/ the cold floor/ her hair and ‘just get on with it’, whatever that is. And then she invites the choreographer to watch.
The choreographer suggests something. She offers an intersection, a disruption (large or small) that contains, directs the moving dancer. Each suggestion comes with a caveat: try it first, you can always leave it. The dancer is not bound to do exactly what the choreographer says. The dancer can make choices within the rules she is dancing with. The choreographer watches, and stretches the spaces around the rules. She clarifies, brings more nuance to the rules, more layers, more textures. She holds the dancer to those spaces, and then she lets her go and watches again, watches as the imprint reveals itself in the dancer’s movements, watching the echoes of that exercise dissipate, collect, re-collect.
The comparison with therapy is not so far off. My mentor and teachers are currently stand-ins for my own choreographer. They enter the space like a gardener, weeding out the stuff the quells the flowers. Putting things in their place, giving space and nourishment to the delicate buds so that they have space to bloom. The result is an instant relief. The skill of self-choreography is to be your own gardener.
Sometimes Rosalind jokingly asks: ‘why can’t you do this yourself? If you spent long enough working alone, 20 years down the line you’d work this out for yourself’. But that’s only if I learn how to work with myself and don’t have a massive falling out that leads to self-destruction! It can be a dangerous game to delve into working alone, precisely because of this self-confrontation.
But I do persevere, which begs the question, why? Why self-choreograph?
To me self-choreography has been a deliberate choice. The embedded-ness of author/performer is both an aesthetic and a political statement. It is about dismantling the hierarchy of performer/ choreographer models and challenging the outside-in approach, (the grand artistic vision), with an inside-out process, one of ‘material handling’ (to quote Barbara Bolt), of finding something rather than producing it.
All this is, in fact, what it means to ‘self-choreograph’.
NB: the notes in this blog aim to document my work as a dance artist / researcher. For notes on my Pilates teaching work please go to http://www.margueritepilates.com
The above photos document my practice (in place) in July 2020. Working in my home here in Tottenham, North East London, I began to capture my movement through an automated photo app. I set up the app to capture a picture every 1 minute for 5 minutes. The result is a series of frames that I call ‘choreographies’, ‘temporal enframings’ of my explorations of the frame as I move around my living space.
‘To see choreography as an apparatus – moreover, to see it as an apparatus that captures
dance only to distribute its significations and mobilizations, its gestures and affects, within fields of light and fields of words that are strictly codified – is to delimit those hegemonic modes of aesthetically perceiving and theoretically accounting for dance’s evolutions in time. The casting of dance as ephemeral, and the casting of that ephemerality as problematic, is already the temporal enframing of dance by the choreographic.’ (Lepecki, 2007)
“If we walk far enough,” says Dorothy, “we shall sometime come to someplace.”
At the start of this scholastic year, when things seemed so certain, dates were fixed and real life plans were made and normally kept, I started a Practice as Research PhD. I began thinking, aiming, intending to unpack the solo form. I cannot really say that working solo was an absolute choice. It was more a situation that I found myself in, and when I tried it out, I found it sometimes fitted and sometimes did not. And so I began to think…
On the occasions when it worked, I was working with some kind of technology, by which I mean, a physical device of some sorts. It could have been a projector in the space, a mirror, a physical frame. Inanimate (although I’m sure that in later writing I will tear that assumption apart) but yet dialogic partners.
On the occasions when it did not work I was on my own in a (usually cold) space, rolling around on the floor, writing increasingly frustrated notes in my diary, like this one on the 14th March 2019: ‘Why am I doing something that I’m just finding really hard? Why do this?’ Or this one on the 25th April 2019: ‘I can’t just improvise!!!!!!’.
I was a maker, a choreographer even. I felt that I had to choreograph in some way, whatever that meant. And there I was, on my own, completely stuck. But I knew I had to ‘do this’, because as an artist for 17 years, I was on the brink of being annihilated. I had shifted so far to the edge of this thing we all call ‘the dance world’ that a gentle sneeze would have shoved me off. I was there, in a freezing cold studio, because I had to be, because being there was the only stake I had left in my claim to being an artist.
If the first two realisations were the basis for my PhD enquiry, then this last one was the motivation for pursuing it. And starting has been like a sigh of relief. Reading, thinking, writing in long hand, un-editing, listening in to this space around the solo and around my work with the solo. I was tired of fitting in to 200 word sections of applications. I now have 50,000 to write and I am going to enjoy every one of them! (Note to self to re-read this post in 4 years time).
I’m using this blog to document, track and share my practice research as it develops, in the hope that, by making this seemingly indulgent enquiry public, I might be prompted to think beyond the scope of my singular work.
You have my reasons for starting a PhD, but you might still wonder what the point of it is. In all honesty, I do not know, but I have a hunch, or a number of hunches: It is about the empowerment of the artist /self, about the problems with choreographic models (the assumptions within and the structures of support that enable them) and about recognising the layers of technology (both visible and invisible) that frame and enframe (to use Heidegger’s term), our practice, so as to reveal the wizard behind the screen.